A bill that would put $250 million into rural broadband internet expansion across the state was approved by the Senate on Tuesday afternoon.

House Bill 320 would allocate $250 million in federal funds to broadband expansion and allow utility cooperatives to use up to 25% of their assets as collateral for broadband projects to underserved or unserved areas. The bill defines “underserved” and “unserved” areas as places where download and upload speeds are below minimums.

“We know the value of broadband across the commonwealth, especially in the rural communities where it can impact property values” and access to education, Sen. David Givens, a Greensburg Republican and member of the Senate’s GOP leadership told the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee early Tuesday.

The amended bill approved Tuesday contains changes the House will have to agree to for the bill to become law. For example, it gives the state Public Service Commission the authority to review and grant approval to a cooperative’s business plan to expand broadband coverage.

“We need the (PSC) to continue to watch the ways these funds are invested,” so the investments of cooperative stakeholders are protected, Givens said.

The bill also gives the Public Service Commission authority to hear complaints about outages in broadband service and requires broadband providers to have a system strong enough to prevent seasonal outages. Givens said, for example, his broadband service had seasonal outages several months of the year.

“We want someone to be a point of contact if there are complaints,” he said.

The funds won’t all be released all at once. Givens said $50 million would be available between July and April 1, 2022. If expansion projects are going well, the remaining $200 million will be released.

“We are saying, ‘The money is there,’ but we are saying spend up to $50 million” between July and April, Givens said. The bill says the rest of the funds can be released after April 1, 2022.

The bill was approved by the full Senate late Tuesday afternoon. The House will have to concur with the Senate’s changes.

Also Tuesday morning, the Senate appropriations committee approved a bill that would, among other things, create a grant program that students could use to attend private schools.

House Bill 563 would allow people to donate to the “Education Opportunity Account” and receive a tax credit for the amount they donate. The funds would be administered by approved nonprofit groups and given to students whose families are not more than 175% above the income that qualifies them for free and reduced lunch.

The grants could be used for private school tuition; tutoring; online education; public school programs that have costs; dual credit classes; physical therapy or behavioral therapy and similar services; textbooks; test fees; computer hardware and software; and more.

The bill also requires school boards to create policies allowing students from outside a school district’s boundaries to attend their schools.

Rep. Chad McCoy, a Bardstown Republican, said the grant program is for families that aren’t wealthy. The program would be for counties with populations above 90,000.

“This is a five-year, time-limited pilot project,” Givens said. “If this concept is good ... very likely we’ll move to expand it across the state.”

Lucy Waterbury, a member of Save Our Schools Kentucky, said public schools already have funding issues.

“Last Tuesday, my school lost its STEM lab” in Fayette County, Waterbury said. The grant program would hurt public schools by reducing revenue to the state’s general fund and by reducing the funding to individual schools when students transfer to private schools. Public schools receive funding based on school populations, she said.

Every dollar lost through reduced school funding or the proposed tax credit “is a dollar less to educate public school children,” Waterbury said. She called the bill a “Trojan Horse.”

“Every year, it will be expanded,” Waterbury said. “Every year, the caps will be raised.”

Waterbury said the bill doesn’t prohibit private schools from discriminating against students who would attend through the grant program.

Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell called the grant program “voucher provisions” and an “attempt to subsidize the private schools at the expense of the public schools.”

McCoy said opponents were mischaracterizing the bill. “We’ve got to be intellectually honest.”

“These are not vouchers,” McCoy said. “Anyone who calls this a voucher doesn’t know what a voucher is.”

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Benton Republican, said if there are any signs of private schools discriminating against students using the grants, “I will be the first to file legislation” to stop it.

The bill passed committee and was passed by the full Senate on a 19-15 vote Tuesday night. Because there were changes, the House will have to agree with the Senate’s version for the bill to become law.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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